Intractable issues and a quick-turnaround election make for problems. But perhaps less so for mayor-elect London Breed.
Agoodly number of San Franciscans — a verifiable majority — are unhappy with the results of our at last-concluded mayor’s race. We are speaking, of course, about the 97.19 percent of you who didn’t vote for Republican mayoral aspirant Richie Greenberg. Because, as we all saw the day after our June 5 election in the New York Times, “Liberal City Is Pushed to the Right By Urban Ills.”
That story carried the (technically more correct) headline on the Internet of “Troubles in San Francisco Push Some Voters to Think Republican.” If by “some” you mean 2.81 percent of the voters, that’s inarguably true.
While taking this vast leap rightward, San Francisco voters also opted to raise commercial real estate taxes to fund early childhood education; make the city pay for attorneys to represent tenants facing eviction; subject ourselves to a parcel tax to bump public school teachers’ salaries; and — spurning the wishes of the wealthy and influential police union — not allow cops to use Tasers in the manner the union would see fit. Oh, we also elected the city’s first African American female mayor, a woman who grew up in public housing and emerged from a downright Dickensian childhood and survived a political kneecapping to win a hotly contested election and seize the inside track on 10 years in City Hall Room 200.
So, no, San Francisco isn’t lurching into Republicanism any more than Dallas is drifting into Marxism. That’s not real. But the headline-worthy “Urban Ills” — those are real. Homelessness, squalor, property crime and stratospheric housing prices have proven to be intractable problems. These are the social ills that every candidate for mayor, with varying degrees of specificity, claimed he or she would address. Doing so would have been an existential challenge for any leader. But Breed won, and, come July 11 or thereabouts when she’s sworn in, they become her problems.
Thiswas the first San Francisco mayoral election without an incumbent since 2003. Starting up a new administration from scratch is always a bumpy affair. And, add to that, Breed — who just won the right to fill out the deceased Ed Lee’s expiring term — will have to face the voters again in November 2019. Some 64 percent of city voters did not put Breed as their first choice in this election. As such, mistakes will be amplified, opponents will be looking for opportunities to make trouble, and the honeymoon will be short.
It will be intriguing, for example, to see how Mayor Breed handles her campaign pledge to clean out all long-term tent encampments in her first year of office. Mayor Mark Farrell, who authored Proposition Q, to ban homeless camps, is comfortable with his status as a reviled figure among homeless advocates. Acting with the panache of a short-time mayor with no (ostensible) political future, he in April ordered a series of sweeps of the encampments. This was not a popular move; clearing out homeless encampments is something politicians enjoy saying they’ll do more than doing. And, in an almost comically predictable move, only six individuals uprooted in the sweeps opted to forego their worldly possessions and sleep on a mat in a shelter — meaning untold numbers of desperate individuals merely drifted somewhere else in the city. The sweep strategy is not unlike stomping on a puddle to create many smaller puddles. You haven’t solved your puddle problem. You’ve merely disseminated it.
Mission Local is told, furthermore, that Farrell “convinced the cops to be a little more forthright” about letting homeless people know that their tents are not welcome in public view. The soon-to-be-former mayor, in short, was not trying to make friends. But the soon-to-be mayor has good reasons to not take this same tack. Especially because some of the most outspoken critics of Farrell’s sweeps were not only the predictable homeless advocates but YIMBYs — the yes-in-my-backyard-group that served as one of Breed’s most enthusiastic backers.
Inmuch the same way vegans are happy to talk to you, at length, about the tenets of veganism, YIMBYs could tell you a bit about the cascading problems induced by underproduction of housing. Tent encampments are the visual symptom of a far deeper problem than recalcitrant people refusing the beneficent offer of a bare mat on a concrete floor. This is what happens when your shelter system forces people to forfeit their possessions and pets and live apart from their partners — and is full past capacity with a long waiting list. This is what happens when Navigation Centers (of which there are none in Breed’s District 5) are overpromised as a panacea — and become semantic misnomers because, due to our lack of housing stock, nobody is “navigating” anywhere.
Clearing out homeless encampments in anything other than a cosmetic fashion involves fundamentally reforming every level of our homeless services and, of course, providing housing — a costly, time-consuming, and labor-intensive haul. If Breed chooses to take the superficial approach, she’s merely stomping on puddles. And angering some of her close allies to boot.
So, that’s a challenge. As would be one of Breed’s signature pledges of opening up a safe-injection site in San Francisco. This is actually not a huge political lift. Prior to his untimely death, Ed Lee was warming to the idea. The Board of Supervisors is open to the idea. But, per multiple sources within City Hall, the City Attorney is not.
Safe-injection sites are, currently, in violation of federal law — and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has gone so far as to call for the death penalty for drug dealers. “Sessions and the Trump administration,” says a City Hall insider, “are no joke.” Operating a dictionary definition illegal endeavor is far too risky an operation for this or any city — and so, for this and other reasons, a non-profit would be tapped to run the safe-injection site. But, ay, there’s the rub: It’s hard to conceive of any non-profit that could take such a job. Any outfit that gets all or part of its money from the federal government could be summarily defunded; swooping in and busting San Francisco for using public funds to allow drug-users to use drugs is just the kind of thing that would most delight Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters.
So, accomplishing these campaign pledges may be difficult. As will meeting Lee’s goal of erecting 5,000 housing units a year — a goal he notably never met and which has been severely constrained due to the radioactive scandal at the Hunters Point Shipyard. Meanwhile, the tech barons and real-estate players who poured millions of dollars into independent expenditure campaigns to benefit Breed will, at some point, inquire about a return on their investment — and it will be intriguing to see how those meetings go. A progressive Board will be eyeing that with interest. When, as is quite possible, Hillary Ronen or Aaron Peskin takes over as board president, you can expect some level of abrasiveness. “London,” says a longtime city political strategist, “will have to figure out how to deal with a constant stream of wedge issues sent to her on a 6-to-5 vote she’ll have to veto, and cleverly designed by Peskin and Co. to make her look like she’s supporting big rich people as they figure out who’s running against her in a few months.”
So, these are obstacles. A city can turn on a mayor right quick — and, after it does, Breed may lose her current benefit of adulatory coverage from the mainstream media.
But London Breed’s whole life has been about surmounting obstacles. If you voted for her because of her policies and what she pledged to do, you may be concerned. But if you voted for her because of her compelling backstory, her lived experience, her charisma, her room-warming smile, her aura of strength and authenticity — you’re not so concerned.
And that’s a plus for London Breed. Because, no matter what, she’ll always be London Breed.